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Morocco, Polisario seek to revive Sahara talks

By on February 10, 2010

The United Nations will try to nudge Morocco and Western Sahara’s independence movement back to serious negotiations on the future of the resource-rich territory at informal talks starting on Wednesday.

More than three decades after their conflict started, Rabat and the Polisario Front introduced new proposals three years ago but formal negotiations broke down after less than a year. A bid to revive them last year was held up by fresh tensions.

In an attempt to get them back on track, negotiators from the two adversaries will meet over two days at a secluded private conference center north of New York City with U.N. mediator Christopher Ross.

“There have been tensions, without a doubt. However, both sides have told me they are prepared to come to this round in a productive, serious frame of mind, and I expect they will,” Ross told reporters in New York.

No major breakthroughs are expected on the substance of the dispute, but the world body is hoping to pave the way for full-scale negotiations to resume.

Morocco annexed the northwest African territory in 1975 and is now offering it autonomy, but Polisario, which fought a guerrilla war until 1991, demands a referendum on the future of the former Spanish colony with independence as one option.

Western Sahara, which is slightly bigger than Britain, has under half a million people known as Sahrawis. But it is rich in phosphates — used in fertilizer — and, potentially, offshore oil and gas.

No country recognizes Morocco’s rule. However, the United States, France and Spain have praised Rabat’s proposal.

Western diplomats say the dispute is hampering efforts to tackle an insurgency linked to al Qaeda that is spreading south through the Sahara Desert. Tension between Morocco and Algeria, which backs Polisario, has also scuttled attempts to form a European Union-style grouping in the area.

DISCUSSIONS NOT SPEECHES

This week’s talks will follow a format devised by Ross, a former U.S. diplomat, who organized informal discussions of just three officials per side in Austria last August to improve the atmosphere and work on confidence-building measures.

Small teams of negotiators met in the town of Duernstein, west of Vienna, and praised the session as “frank” and “deep.” U.N. officials believe those talks promoted “discussions instead of speeches” and re-established a respectful relationship between the sides.

But in October, Morocco arrested seven Sahara rights activists and tension rose further when Polisario activist Aminatou Haidar staged a month-long hunger strike in Spain.

Rabat had refused to let her back into Western Sahara unless she declared loyalty to Morocco’s king. She was eventually allowed to return home in December after the United States, Spain and other countries intervened.

At Duernstein, Morocco and Polisario agreed to discuss with the U.N. refugee agency overland visits between Sahrawis in Western Sahara and those exiled in camps in Algeria, and to hold confidence-building meetings between Sahrawis and Morocccans. Nothing has yet come of either agreement.

Diplomats said the emphasis this week was likely to shift to the parties’ core plans for Sahara.

“The main purpose here is to get the parties to engage seriously on the two proposals,” said one senior diplomat who follows the issue. But he added, “Progress is likely to be very slow.”

Morocco’s team is expected to be led by Foreign Minister Taieb Fassi Fihri and Polisario’s by Mahfoud Ali Beiba, speaker of Polisario’s parliament-in-exile, U.N. officials said.

Reuters.

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